When I was growing up in the American West, my family’s vacation mantra was that National Parks and Monuments were the gold standard; no matter how obscure (and in the 1950s, parks like Mesa Verde, Arches, Dinosaur, Cedar Breaks, and even the North Rim of the Grand Canyon were not only obscure but hard to get to), a National Park or Monument offered a landscape, scientific insight, or historical event worth visiting. In The Land Between the Lakes: A Geography of the Forgotten Future, Ronald A. Foresta examines what happened when a park was created not for its landscapes or scientific/historical import but rather for a future recreational need that never came to be.
The park is called the Land between the Lakes, and it is located in Western Tennessee, between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. It occupies a peninsula between two lakes formed by Tennessee Valley Authority dams. In the early 1960s, as the reservoirs were filling, the TVA began to build a park here. It was a place of low, rolling hills, forested tracts, small landholdings but without any spectacular landmark or historical significance. This didn’t trouble the park’s creators. They planned to build educational centers, campgrounds, boat launching ramps, hiking trails, Boy Scout Camps, even reshape the land itself to attract visitors. They “knew what the future would be like,” Foresta writes (2). They believed that the Land between the Lakes “would host the vast leisure that Americans would enjoy in coming decades, and would help turn that leisure into happiness, psychic well-being, and strong inner character" (2). The people who would be displaced had endured poverty, moonshiners, distrust of outsiders, distaste for government, and disregard for the law, but it was assumed they would welcome the opportunity to sell their land and escape to a more mainstream America. Most did. Yet even as the inhabitants of the LBL were being displaced, even as the first campgrounds were being laid out, the societal forces that would doom the park creator’s vision were gathering.
In 1890, when the US Government declared the frontier officially ended, Foresta writes, progressive intellectuals like the historian Frederick Jackson Turner worried what would replace the frontier as the spiritual catalyst for American society. At the same time, government land managers like John Wesley Powell, facing a dry American West and no prospect of new agricultural land, began to advocate a greater role for the Federal Government in how land was used. Meanwhile industrialization and urbanization had unleashed “wrecking balls,” as Foresta puts it, on American values (16). Most progressives believed American economy would create unprecedented wealth and leisure for its workers, but they also worried this would occur at the cost of workers’ spiritual values. Was it government’s obligation to forestall such a malaise? Progressives believed it was. Recreation, especially outdoor recreation, was crucial. Outdoor activities would rekindle the imagination and drive that the frontier had once inspired. But only a government led by enlightened bureaucrats and backed by interdisciplinary experts had the resources to implement such a program. It was a philosophy that would underpin Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose politics, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the post-World War II policies of JFK’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
The onset of the Great Depression proved prosperity more fragile than progressives (or anybody else) thought. Franklin Roosevelt, the new president, needed a showcase for his New Deal policies. He chose the Tennessee Valley and created the Tennessee Valley Authority. Viewed from a contemporary perspective, it’s remarkable how broad TVA’s charter was: the TVA was authorized to build dams and reservoirs but also to improve agriculture, resettle people, promote local industry, and provide public recreation. Soon TVA managers were recruiting specialists in all these fields. These young experts, mostly academics, shared a certainty that the future was knowable and that land and people could be shaped to serve the future’s needs. It was among these experts, in the 1930s, that the idea for the LBL was born.
It would take three decades before the LBL came to be. Foresta documents a path to its creation filled with bureaucrats, politicians, government infighting, personal ties, personal antipathies, and anti-park antagonists. But the prophets of the progressive future were planted deep within the TVA. Their ideas would survive the hiatus caused by World War II, the TVA’s post-war focus on power generation, objections from southern academics (the “Agrarian movement”) who maintained that TVA policies were destroying a southern way of life, and even opposition from the Audubon Society, which wanted the LBL to be a wildlife preserve. Finally, in 1960, when JFK was elected and Stewart Udall became Secretary of the Interior, the LBL sprang to life.
At its inception, the elements of the “progressive future” were still in place. By the end of the decade, all would be under siege.
The American economy was faltering under the burden of the Vietnam War and the challenge of foreign competition. Overseas markets were offering faster growth and higher profits causing businessmen to be less sympathetic to corporate taxes that heretofore had been considered necessary to keep the American economy growing. Southerners were tilting toward an anti-federal populism born from their resentment of recently enacted Federal civil-rights laws. A new environmental movement had sprung into being that doubted humankind’s ability to reshape the world and demanded a more conservation-and-preservation-oriented land-management policy. Even Stewart Udall, the Secretary of Interior who had advocated, lobbied for, and ultimately approved the LBL, had by the late sixties began to doubt the wisdom of the progressive future, especially as it applied to the environment.
For the next three decades, LBL park managers struggled to deal with visitor numbers far below what the progressive futurists had promised, with budgets far less than were needed, with vandals and poachers who happily evaded the inadequate park law-enforcement, with local businesses who opposed any expansion of facilities that might jeopardize their enterprises (at one point new ice machines installed in campgrounds were removed when local businesses objected), with politicians who cited the park as yet another example of Federal profligacy, with academics who romanticized a pre-LBL culture that never really existed, with environmentalists who opposed facilities that might have attracted more visitors, with hunters who wanted more deer (and when the deer came so did ticks and chiggers requiring park managers to surround campgrounds with concentration-camp-like fences, which annoyed campers, and to disperse insecticides, which infuriated environmentalists), and always with the changing tides of Federal policy: environmentalism in the seventies, fee-based recreation in the Regan years, management-faddism in the early nineties, until, quietly, in the late nineties, the LBL was assigned to the United States Forest Service. The LBL as envisioned by its creators, was dead. Its fate, Foresta concludes, “the fate of all places built on failed visions” (233).
How important is it that we understand its failure? Very, Foresta maintains. “Myth and illusion [about the LBL] became central to the region’s folk history and the basis for its political mobilization” (239). It became a justification for politics focused on “nefarious ends (239). He goes on to conclude that the LBL “would have improved our lives” (240).
Would it have improved our lives?
The LBL’s failure, it seems to this reviewer, stemmed from managers who believed they knew what people needed better than the people knew what they needed. A flawed vision to be sure. But during the LBL’s rise and fall many government visions didn’t fail: the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Scenic Rivers Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the National Seashore Act, the Scenic Byways Act, the thousands of square miles set aside by Congress and six presidents into National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas.
As I read Foresta’s book, I was encamped in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. It’s a place of potentially conflicting interests. Four levels of government, a famous private ski resort that leases its mountain from the government, the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, cattlemen, sheep herders, hunters, snow-mobile-ers, cyclers, RVers, ATVers, equestrians, golfers, fly fisherman, hikers, rock climbers, woodcutters, Nordic skiers, Mormons, movie stars, urban refugees, environmentalists. A few blocks from where I sit, the Sawtooth National Scenic Byway passes through the town of Ketchum. In October each year, the town celebrates “The Running of the Sheep” recognizing its sheep-herding past, also part of its present. Much of what this place has become is due government programs. But, in the fourteen years my wife and I have owned a vacation home here, I’ve been impressed how these potential adversaries sit across from each other and compromise. And this in a very conservative state. Is it because they have in common a love for this valley? Is it because this valley is so unique in its wildflower-cloaked hills, its snowcapped peaks, its crystal-clear rivers? Is that the difference with the LBL? Or is it this: that the people who loved the LBL were never invited to determine its fate?
The Land between The Lakes: A Geography of the Forgotten Future. By Ronald A. Foresta. University of Tennessee Press, 2013.